DeSmog’s Top 10 Investigations for 2021

Sketchy oil waste dumps in Argentina and Texas. Social media campaigns spreading misinformation. The history of white supremacy in the oil industry. Here’s a look at the hard-hitting journalism that DeSmog published in 2021.
Analysis
DeSmog’s Top 10 Investigations for 2021
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Flares at ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge
Flares at ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on September 2, 2021, following Hurricane Ida. Credit: Julie Dermansky

2021 saw a year of extreme weather, soaring temperatures, and concerns about the worsening climate crisis hitting a fever pitch. DeSmog published dozens of in-depth investigations looking at the money and power behind efforts to derail climate action, campaigns of misinformation, corporate-backed lobbying efforts to influence legislation and public discourse, the grassroots movements fighting for environmental justice, and more. 

Here is a rundown of the top 10 investigations that DeSmog published in 2021. 

1: ‘Fraudulent’ Behavior

In February we published the story, “Whistleblower Accuses Exxon of ‘Fraudulent’ Behavior for Overvaluing Fracking Assets For Years.” DeSmog’s exclusive, reported by me, dug into how Exxon has misled investors and regulators, refusing to write-down the value of assets that deteriorated in value over the past decade. According to a former Exxon employee and SEC whistleblower, ExxonMobil has overvalued its assets for years – to the tune of roughly $41 billion – engaging in “fraudulent and defiant behavior.” 

2: Climate Deniers on January 6 

Following the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, DeSmog released two pieces of reporting by Sharon Kelly examining how climate deniers responded to the event. In our story, “Climate Deniers Moved Rapidly to Spread Misinformation During and After Attack on US Capitol,” DeSmog investigated the overlap between known climate deniers and the insurrection against the U.S. government. Climate deniers, including some with ties to the Heartland Institute, for example, expressed support for the January 6 attack. 

And in the follow-up story, “Climate Deniers Backed Violence and Spread Pro-Insurrection Messages Before, During, and After January 6,” DeSmog investigated the social media posts following the January 6 insurrection and found that prominent climate deniers – both individuals and organizations – spread debunked claims about election fraud and hinted at civil war.

3: Sketchy Oil and Gas Waste

Also this year, DeSmog investigated a criminal complaint filed by a group of lawyers in Argentina against a fracking waste disposal company and government officials. As our story — “Argentina’s Illegal Oil and Gas Waste Dumps Show ‘Dark Side’ of Vaca Muerta Drilling, Says Criminal Complaint” — showed, oil waste has been accumulating at potentially illegal waste dumps in the heart of Argentina’s fracking zone.

4: Fossil Fuel Industry’s Racist Past

“Understanding the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Legacy of White Supremacy,” was another critical story, written by Kendra Pierre-Louis and published in March. In it, DeSmog looked back on the history of the oil industry’s links to white supremacy. As the story describes, when the first major oil discovery occurred in the U.S. in northwest Pennsylvania in the 19th century, the benefits were intended for “whites only.” Oil boomtowns have also been the sites of brutal attacks by whites against Blacks. 

5: A Lawyer’s Effort to Help Frontline Communities

In a longform feature released in April, DeSmog looked backed on “The Life and Death of a Pioneering Environmental Justice Lawyer,” Luke Cole, who tragically died in 2009. As Rico Moore reported, Luke Cole represented the tiny Native village of Kivalina on Alaska’s northern coast in a case against ExxonMobil that came to symbolize the fight for redress for damages from climate change. 

6: Protecting Pipelines

Another DeSmog investigation reported by Karen Savage — “Private Security Firm Accused of Working Illegally to Protect Oil and Gas Pipelines in Five States” — found that a private security company accused of working without a license during construction of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline was also hired to provide security for the Mountain Valley pipeline in Virginia. While pipeline protesters risk harsh new penalties enacted in various states, security companies hired to police fossil fuel projects are operating with little oversight, DeSmog reported.

7: Investigating Radioactive Waste at a Texas Disposal Site

“Where Does All The Radioactive Fracking Waste Go?” was a key question at the center of a year-long investigation by Justin Nobel which we published in April. With the help of public records and a whistleblower account, it found that a major West Texas disposal site has handled radioactive oilfield waste, sometimes imported from overseas, with a patchy safety record and little oversight. DeSmog sent a photographer over the disposal site in a small plane, revealing the site still contained a significant number of stockpiled barrels. In the wake of our reporting, the company running the waste site threatened legal action against DeSmog.

8: Oil and Gas in the Gulf

After Hurricane Ida ripped through the Gulf of Mexico in August, the Noble Globetrotter II Drill Ship was left to ride out the storm. In Sharon Kelly’s story, “Crew of Drill Ship Reportedly Still Stranded at Sea,” DeSmog reported that the crew was still on board and that the ship may have suffered damage. In follow-up coverage, DeSmog reported that the Noble Globetrotter II’s lower marine riser package, a massive piece of equipment weighing tens of thousands of pounds, detached from the ship and sank to the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico, in an area thick with underwater oil and gas pipelines.

9: Climate Denial on Twitter

A DeSmog investigation of over 300,000 tweets from the past five years revealed four main strategies used by polluters seeking to block climate action. Explicit climate denial is no longer a dominant tactic used by the fossil fuel industry, concluded Stella Levantesi and Giulio Corsi. The story, “Climate Deniers Using Four Major Scare Tactics to Stop Climate Action,” describes how climate deniers online warn of doomsday scenarios stemming from climate policies, link climate policy to socialism, trumpet that environmentalists will take away hamburgers, and connect climate policy to broader conspiracy theories. 

10: Mapping Industry Lobbying

Across the pond, our UK team has been busy all year producing several hard-hitting investigations that expose the forces continuing to undermine climate action. This work includes analyzing “climate conflicted” bank directors, carbon offsets, the biomass industry, documenting agribusiness lobbying, and corporate greenwash.

Editor’s Note: If you’re inspired by the many incredible deep-diving investigations that our small team manages to publish each year, consider supporting DeSmog’s public-interest journalism with a donation today.

DeSmog’s Top 10 Investigations for 2021
Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. He has been featured in Oilprice.com, The Fuse, YaleE360 and NACLA.

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